Zookeeper and Animal Trainer

Zookeeper and Animal Trainer

LisaAnnOKane

Tampa, FL

Female, 32

During my zookeeping and environmental education career, I have interacted and worked with a variety of animals, including brown bears, wolverines, red foxes, moose, camels, mountain goats, dolphins, sea lions, raccoons, porcupines, snakes, raptors and ravens. I am also a young adult author, and my debut novel ESSENCE was released in June 2014 by Strange Chemistry Books. Ask me anything!

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Last Answer on September 18, 2015

Best Rated

What animal are kids usually most excited to see?

Asked by catherine about 5 years ago

Elephants! And big predators like polar bears or tigers or sharks. Also, who can resist a dolphin or a sea lion? I suppose a better answer would be that it really depends on the child. Some kids freak out over petting zoo animals, while some love aviaries where little birds land on their heads. Stereotypically speaking, though, my opinion would be that the biggest animals tend to be the biggest draws. Maybe kids just like to be humbled, or maybe it's hard for them to comprehend how big an animal actually is until they see it? Hard to tell, I guess, but the elephant line always seems to be the longest... ;)

Hello,

Please let me know about monobenzone and benoquin cream.

Asked by What is monobenzone cream? about 5 years ago

Wow, this is a hard one! I will preface this by saying I have never used this medication (whether on an animal or on myself), so I am definitely not an expert on this. And I'm not familiar with this medication ever being used on an animal for any reason--except during its testing stage in labs. (I could definitely be wrong, though. Someone please correct me if you know better!) However, I am a little familiar with the medication, so I will give this my best shot. Benoquin (generic name Monobenzone) is a monobenzyl ether of hydroquinone that is used by humans to depigment their skin. It works by increasing the excretion of melanin--which is the pigment that gives our skin color. Without melanin, our skin becomes much lighter. Benoquin isn't recommended cosmetically for things like lightening freckles (because the results can be uneven), but it can be very effective with certain skin conditions like vitiligo--which is uneven colorless patches on otherwise normal skin. (Think Michael Jackson. Although there is some speculation as to whether or not he actually had vitiligo, he definitely used Benoquin--and other drugs--to lighten his skin. The result is the dramatic transformation of his skin tone through the years.) Hope this helps!

How many animals are there in a typical zoo, and how many people are needed to take care of a zoo this size?

Asked by Royce about 5 years ago

I wish there were a simple answer for this question, but there is so much variation between zoos that it's nearly impossible to make a generalization. In terms of staffing, it is also important to take into account what kind of animals each facility has. (Two elephants require way more trainers than 10 turtles, for instance.) Off the top of my head, I know that the San Diego Zoo (a very big and impressive facility) has more than 4,000 animals, but the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago has more than 32,500. Many of the Aquarium's animals are tiny invertebrates and fish, so the number doesn't tell you nearly as much as you would initially think. Using specific examples from my background, I have independently cared for about 25 animals during one shift. Some of these animals were small and easy like baby quails, but some were big and high-maintenance like eagles. I worked in another facility where 15-17 dolphins were taken care of by 6-9 trainers, so staffing definitely depends on the specific animal species. It also depends on each zoo's vision and approach to behavioral enrichment and training. (The more staff we have on hand, the more time we can dedicate to the "fun stuff" like making enrichment for our animals and leading training sessions!)

Can lions or tigers be domesticated? I've seen footage of people keeping them as pets - sweet as they seem, couldn't those animals snap at any minute?

Asked by C-Moz72 about 5 years ago

Hi C-Moz, you've hit the nail on the head. I highly discourage people from keeping any exotic animals as pets, but I PASSIONATELY discourage people from keeping big cats as pets. Illegal pet trade and animal welfare issues aside, domestication is a process that takes hundreds--if not thousands--of years of selective breeding. In order for an animal to be truly "domesticated," its natural instinct to fear humans must be completely bred out. (See my answer for the "dogs vs. wolves" question on this page for more info about how domestication works.) That's not to say a wild lion or tiger CAN'T be trained to safely--and sometimes affectionately--interact with a human. This happens frequently in zoos and wildlife rehabilitation centers all across the country. The difference is that these animals are so powerful, instinctual and unpredictable that I believe they should only be trained by knowledgeable animal care professionals. Professionals are also WAY better equipped to deal with the enrichment and animal care issues that come up with these animals. Invariably, many of these so-called "pets" end up dumped in shelters or euthanized, and many don't get nearly the exercise or care they need. (See my answer to the "animals not commonly kept as pets" question on this page for more information about this.) Again, I'm not claiming the care of a lion or tiger by a private individual is IMPOSSIBLE; I'm sure many people keep big cats without incident. I just know that I personally wouldn't even feel comfortable keeping a big cat as a pet, and I AM an animal care professional. Better safe than sorry, you know?

Are a lot of people in your line of work vegetarian/vegan, given that they work so closely with animals day in and day out?

Asked by m0ng00se about 5 years ago

Awesome question! There are definitely some, but I'm actually surprised there aren't more. Instead, it seems like many of the zookeepers I've worked with have grown this bizarre tolerance to all the gross raw meat and nastiness they have to handle on a daily basis. Many can even take a fecal sample and then roll right into eating a hamburger. (After hand-washing, of course!) The one exception to this is marine mammal trainers. They handle so much raw fish that most of the ones I know gag at even the thought of sushi!

This is an amazing Q&A - you're really good at explaining stuff :) Did you hear about the Seaworld whale trainer dying in 2010? Do you think they should stop the whale shows when there's basically no way to prevent a killer whale from going crazy?

Asked by andrea s. about 5 years ago

Thanks for reading, Andrea! I did hear about this trainer’s death, and I think this situation is so heartbreaking and complicated. I will give you my opinion on this tragedy, but please understand that this is just my personal opinion--not the official stance of any organization or group of organizations. What happened to Dawn Brancheau was absolutely tragic. Sea World has made the decision to suspend the in-water portion of their orca shows, and I respect that decision very much. They have made the right move if this new policy saves even one other trainer from suffering a similar fate. I do want to stress, however, that I think it is rash for the public to pass judgment on the entire Sea World orca population—or Sea World in general—based on the actions of this one particular male orca. (And don’t be fooled by their identical appearances! Orcas demonstrate behavioral preferences and choices that vary as widely and drastically as human personalities.) Even before this tragedy occurred, I believe Sea World had some of the most impressive safety protocols of any organization in the world. Their enrichment and training program is top of the line, and many of the country’s best trainers, veterinarians and specialists work for them. (A friend of mine actually started at Sea World in 2006. Her dream was to become an orca trainer, but she was assigned to the dolphin department first. She was told it would be YEARS before she was given so much as an orca fish bucket, so you know Sea World takes its orca department seriously.) My personal opinion is that what happened to Dawn Brancheau was a tragic aligning of the stars. Everything from her choice in hairstyles to the time of year to this particular whale’s mood and temperament stacked up and collided to create one moment where one whale made one decision that will forever alter the way marine mammal facilities operate. It is impossible to know if this situation would ever repeat itself. Sea World has operated for many, many years with many, many whales that have never made the decision this whale did. But when in doubt, you may as well err on the side of caution. That’s what I believe Sea World has done, so I very much respect their judgment.

Are camels particularly friendly animals, or do they have a temper? What would they do if they felt scared or threatened?

Asked by CNHolmberg about 5 years ago

Hi Charlie! You are in luck, because the "animal love of my life" happens to be a huge Bactrian camel named Knobby. (He lives at the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage, and he LOVES visitors!) I didn't know too much about camels until I started working with Knobby, but I sure became an expert quickly. I learned that camels (especially male camels) can be incredibly ornery. They can also be very dangerous, and some people die from camel attacks every year. When camels feel scared or threatened, they generally spit, stamp their feet and swing their heads. They attack by trampling and even crushing, and males grow very long incisors they use for fighting. Now, I don't want to suggest camels are blood-thirsty killers or anything. They are just HUGE, and they are incredibly powerful. Males can stand more than seven feet tall at the hump, and they can weigh more than 2,000 pounds. I would probably stereotype a camel's disposition as similar to a donkey or llama--although individual camels obviously vary as widely as humans. Camels are also very smart, and they can be trained to be great companions if you are focused and dedicated. Speaking from my experience, I began working with Knobby when he was only six months old. As he grew, he began spitting and charging and generally being terrifying. It got to the point where I didn't even feel comfortable going in his enclosure with him. (One time, he even cornered and trapped me behind a gate, and it literally crossed my mind that he may kill me.) Instead of giving up on him or reverting to the old methods of negative training, I began doing positive reinforcement training with him through his bars. After many, many, many months of hard work, I was able to not only enter his enclosure with him, but to lead him through a variety of complicated commands, including sitting on command, rolling on his side, presenting his feet for inspection, wearing a halter and letting me to sit on his back. As time passed, he grew to be my very favorite animal, and I grew to be his favorite human. He ran over to me whenever he saw me, and he cried his head off whenever I left. We had an amazing relationship (and I still miss him every single day), but I never grew complacent with him, because I knew I always had to respect his strength. Even when we were in the middle of our training sessions, I always had an escape plan in the back of my mind. And whenever he got too excited, I always cut our training sessions short. Better safe than sorry. ;)